We just returned from our eighth summer road trip. It’s crazy how fast the years fly by. These road trips are a must for our family and we make sacrifices all year long to make sure they happen. We have seen so many incredible places and the time we spend together is priceless. I’m always sad when it’s over but excited to start planning for next summer. This summer we stayed a little closer to home (I’m still recovering from driving to Montana last summer ) and visited Southwest Colorado. The beauty in this part of the country is just incredible. I felt like we were in a painting for the majority of our trip. We started our trip in Durango, Colorado where we stayed for four days. As my kids are getting older they require more exciting activities to keep them interested, so I tried to plan more “fun” activities and less hiking and hanging out at camp. I could sit at camp all day and stare at nothing but apparently that’s not what teenagers consider fun.
White Water Rafting on the Lower Animas River
Our first day in Durango was action packed. We started the day white water rafting on the Lower Animas River with Mild to Wild as our guide. This was our first time white water rafting and We. Had. A. Blast. It was Little Mister’s favorite activity of the entire trip and it ranked up high for the rest of us. I was nervous for the rapids but it turned out to be super fun and I’d go again in a heartbeat.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is about 45 minutes from Durango and is definitely worth a stop. Mesa Verde is an incredible collection of thousands of archeological sites which includes hundreds of cliff dwelling and mesa top sites. A handful of the cliff dwellings are available for tour and many can be seen from different viewpoints throughout the park. It’s pretty incredible to look out onto a rock wall and see a couple windows in the wall. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live in the side of a cliff. The Ancestral Puebloans have my respect.
While the park entrance is 45 minutes from Durango, the park is comprised of two mesas and it takes another 45 minutes or so to get to each one. The dwellings are at the end of each mesa and the drive is beautiful. Realistically, you need at least half a day to visit the park. Many of the cliff dwellings can be seen without taking a tour or if you want to get up close you can purchase a tour ticket. Standard tour tickets are first come first serve, must be purchased in person, and it’s not uncommon for them to sell out. There are several tours that offer advanced tickets, which can be purchased through Recreation.gov, but they are more expensive than the standard tour tickets.
Knowing that we wouldn’t have more than a couple hours in the park, we chose to purchase tickets to the Twilight Tour of Cliff Palace. Tickets are $20 a piece instead of $5 and are purchased in advance through Recreation.gov. The Twilight Tour is 90 minutes rather than the typical 60 and allows for more time to enjoy the cliff dwellings. I guess this tour is designed for photography so people can spend time taking lots of pictures but we didn’t learn much about the cliff dwelling. The ranger was available for questions but she mostly stayed put talking to the same people. The plus is that during the hot summer months you are exploring at sunset rather than in the middle of the hot afternoon. This is the main reason we chose this tour but with it costing considerably more than the other tours, I was disappointed that we didn’t learn more.
Cliff Palace is on the Chapin Mesa. The Wetherill Mesa has a five mile walk/bike loop which we wanted to visit but ran out of time. If you are in the area I would definitely recommend a stop at Mesa Verde. Even just a quick drive through the park with stops at several of the viewpoints will leave you in awe of the Ancestral Puebloans.
My kids love Alpine Slides and we try to squeeze them in whenever we are in an area with one. Purgatory is about 30 minutes north of Durango and is a ski resort that turns into an outdoor playground in the summer. The activities add up so we opted just for the Alpine Slide but if you have more time and a little more of a budget it would be fun do more activities. If you are there in July, keep in mind that Durango often experiences thunderstorms in the afternoons. The first time we headed to Purgatory a storm rolled in and the lifts closed when we got there. The second time we headed up earlier in the day and the lifts closed as we were sliding down the mountain. Earlier is better to ensure you get a ride.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
As a kid I rode the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad almost every summer. I have been wanting to take my kids on the train for a while and we finally made it happen this summer. We had a good time but I might be set for the rest of my life. I enjoyed watching the train come through our campground and seeing it around Durango and Silverton more than I did riding it. The scenery was lovely and it made for a neat experience but the cars bounced around so much. I don’t typically get motion sickness but the bouncing was too much for me.
We had tickets for the roundtrip train but decided 3.5 hours on a train was enough. When we arrived in Durango we upgraded our tickets so we could ride the bus back to Durango. This is not a guaranteed option and they will only let you upgrade if there is space available. If you know ahead of time that you want to take the bus one way you can purchase a train/bus combo ticket. I actually would recommend taking the bus one way. We got a great history lesson and learned so much on the 90 minutes ride between Silverton and Durango. It was truly a highlight of our train trip and rounded out the day. We spent the morning enjoying the scenery and the afternoon learning about what we just rode through.
There are four different classes of cars and we chose the standard class vintage coach. The seats in the vintage coach reminded me of school bus seats but they were fine for our 3.5 hour ride. Since there are four of us we purchased seats on both side of the isle so that we could see all the scenery without having to look over someone else’s shoulder. The scenery does alternate back and forth but the right side of the train is more scenic heading from Durango to Silverton. There are windows in the vintage coach but they only open about 1/3 of the way. Little Miss was able to get her head out but I tried once and about got stuck. Don’t follow in my footsteps. On the train you are able to purchase books, maps, and other souvenirs. We purchased a map for $5 and it was worth every penny. I would actually recommend it if you ride the train. Turns out train whistles actually mean something! It’s morse code and that’s how the conductor communicates with everyone working on the train. The map lists the codes and we had a blast trying to figure out the whistles. In addition, the map gives some history and tells when a picturesque area is coming up.
While in Durango we stayed at the United Campground. We chose this campground because the Durango & Silverton train tracks run through the campground so you get to see the train up close several times a day. Additionally, last time we were in Durango we stayed at the KOA, which is a little bit out of town, and we wanted to be closer to town. The United Campground was nice but next time we’re in Durango we’ll stay at the KOA.
Pros of the United Campground:
- The train runs through three times in the morning and three times in the evening. It was so much fun watching everyone gather around the tracks to watch the train go by. The kids loved putting coins on the tracks and then trying to find them after the train passed by.
- Close to downtown and on the trolley line
- Heated pool
Cons of the United Campground:
- Spaces are close together
- Lots of highway noise
- No playground for the kids
- Does not accept online reservations and will not take a credit card over the phone. You have to mail in a check after calling to reserve your spot.
If you’ve been to Durango and want to share a tip or have questions don’t hesitate to comment below. Our next stop is Ouray, Colorado!